I. Brief Historical Development of Hebrew

Hebrew is part of the Shemitic (Semitic) family of southwest Asian language. The name (given by modern scholars) comes from Noah's son, Shem (cf. Gen. 5:32; 6:10). Shem's descendants are listed in Gen. 10:21-31 as Arabs, Hebrews, Syrians, Arameans, and Assyrians. In reality, some Semitic languages are used by nations listed in Ham's line (cf. Gen. 10:6-14), Canaan, Phoenicia, and Ethiopia.

Hebrew is part of the northwest group of these Semitic languages. Modern scholars have samples of this ancient language group from:

A. Amorite (Mari Tablets from 18th century b.c. in Akkadian)

B. Canaanite (Ras Shamra Tablets from 15th century B.C. in Ugaritic)

C. Canaanite (Amarna Letters from 14th century B.C. in Canaanite Akkadian)

D. Phoenician (Hebrew uses Phoenician alphabet)

E. Moabite (Mesha stone, 840 b.c.)

F. Aramaic (official language of the Persian Empire used in Gen. 31:47 [2 words]; Jer. 10:11; Dan. 2:4b-6; 7:28; Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26 and spoken by Jews in the first century A.D. in Palestine)

The Hebrew language is called "the lip of Canaan" in Isa. 19:18. It was first called "Hebrew" in the prologue of Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Ben Sirach) about 180 b.c. (and some other early places, cf. Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 4, pp. 205ff). It is most closely related to Moabite and the language used at Ugarit. Examples of ancient Hebrew found outside the Bible are

1. the Gezer calendar, 925 b.c. (a school boy's writing)

2. the Siloam Inscription, 705 b.c. (tunnel writings)

3. Samaritan Ostraca, 770 b.c. (tax records on broken pottery)

4. Lachish letters, 587 b.c. (war communications)

5. Maccabean coins and seals

6. some Dead Sea Scroll texts

7. numerous inscriptions (cf. "Languages [Hebrew]," ABD 4:203ff)

It, like all Semitic languages, is characterized by words made up of three consonants (tri-consonantal root). It is an inflexed language. The three-root consonants carry the basic word meaning, while prefixed, suffixed, or internal additions show the syntactical function (vowels add later, cf. Sue Groom, Linguistic Analysis of Biblical Hebrew, pp. 46-49).

Hebrew vocabulary demonstrates a difference between prose and poetry. Word meanings are connected to folk etymologies (not linguistic origins). Word plays and sound plays are quite common (paronomasia).


II. Aspects of Predication


The normal expected word order is VERB, PRONOUN, SUBJECT (with modifiers), OBJECT (with modifiers). The basic non-flagged VERB is the Qal, PERFECT, MASCULINE, SINGULAR form. It is how Hebrew and Aramaic lexicons are arranged.

VERBS are inflected to show

1. number-singular, plural, dual

2. gender-masculine and feminine (no neuter)

3. mood-indicative, subjunctive, imperative (by analogy to modern western languages, the relation of the action to reality)

4. tense (aspect)

a. PERFECT, which denotes completed, in the sense of the beginning, continuing, and concluding, of an action. Usually this form was used of past action, the thing has occurred.

     J. Wash Watts, A Survey of Syntax in the Hebrew Old Testament, says

"The single whole described by a perfect is also considered as certain. An imperfect may picture a state as possible or desired or expected, but a perfect sees it as actual, real, and sure" (p. 36).

     S. R. Driver, A Treatise on the Use of the Tenses in Hebrew, describes it as:

"The perfect is employed to indicate actions the accomplishment of which lies indeed in the future, but is regarded as dependent upon such an unalterable determination of the will that it may be spoken of as having actually taken place: thus a resolution, promise, or decree, especially a Divine one, is frequently announced in the perfect tense" (p. 17, e.g.,, the prophetic perfect).

     Robert B. Chisholm, Jr. From Exegesis to Exposition, defines this verbal form in this way:

". . .views a situation from the outside, as a whole. As such it expresses a simple fact, whether it be an action or state (including state of being or mind). When used of actions, it often views the action as complete from the rhetorical standpoint of the speaker or narrator (whether it is or is not complete in fact or reality is not the point). The perfect can pertain to an action/state in the past, present or future. As noted above, time frame, which influences how one translates the perfect into a tense-oriented language like English, must be determined from the context" (p. 86).

b. IMPERFECT, which denotes an action in progress (incomplete, repetitive, continual, or contingent), often movement toward a goal. Usually this form was used of Present and Future action.

     J. Wash Watts, A Survey of Syntax in the Hebrew Old Testament, says:

"All IMPERFECTS represent incomplete states. They are either repeated or developing or contingent. In other words, or partially developed, or partially assured. In all cases they are partial in some sense, i.e., incomplete" (p. 55).

     Robert B. Chisholm, Jr. From Exegesis to Exposition, says

"It is difficult to reduce the essence of the imperfect to a single concept, for it encompasses both aspect and mood. Sometimes the imperfect is used in an indicative manner and makes an objective statement. At other times it views an action more subjectively, as hypothetical, contingent, possible, and so on" (p. 89).

c. The added waw, which links the VERB to the action of the previous VERB(s).

d. IMPERATIVE, which is based on the volition of the speaker and potential action by the hearer.

e. In ancient Hebrew only the larger context can determine the authorial-intended time orientations.

B. The seven major inflected forms and their basic meaning. In reality these forms work in conjunction with each other in a context and must not be isolated.

1. Qal (Kal), the most common and basic of all the forms. It denotes simple action or a state of being. There is no causation or specification implied.

2. Niphal, the second most common form. It is usually PASSIVE, but this form also functions as reciprocal and reflexive. It also has no causation or specification implied.

3. Piel, this form is active and expresses the bringing about of an action into a state of being. The basic meaning of the Qal stem is developed or extended into a state of being.

4. Pual, this is the PASSIVE counterpart to the Piel. It is often expressed by a PARTICIPLE.

5. Hithpael, which is the reflexive or reciprocal stem. It expresses iterative or durative action to the Piel stem. The rare PASSIVE form is called Hothpael.

6. Hiphil, the active form of the causative stem in contrast to Piel. It can have a permissive aspect, but usually refers to the cause of an event. Ernst Jenni, a German Hebrew grammarian, believed that the Piel denoted something coming into a state of being, while Hiphil showed how it happened.

7. Hophal, the PASSIVE counterpart to the Hiphil. These last two stems are the least used of the seven stems.

Much of this information comes from An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, by Bruce K. Waltke and M. O'Connor, pp. 343-452.

Agency and causation chart. One key in understanding the Hebrew VERB system is to see it as a pattern of VOICE relationships. Some stems are in contrast to other stems (i.e., Qal - Niphal; Piel - Hiphil)

The chart below tries to visualize the basic function of the VERB stems as to causation.

 VOICE or Subject

No Secondary Agency

An Active Secondary Agency

A Passive Secondary Agency













This chart is taken from the excellent discussion of the VERBAL system in light of new Akkadian research (cf. Bruce K. Waltke, M. O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, pp.354-359).

R. H. Kennett, A Short Account of the Hebrew Tenses, has provided a needed warning.

"I have commonly found in teaching, that a student's chief difficulty in the Hebrew verbs is to grasp the meaning which they conveyed to the minds of the Hebrews themselves; that is to say, there is a tendency to assign as equivalents to each of the Hebrew Tenses a certain number of Latin or English forms by which that particular Tense may commonly be translated. The result is a failure to perceive many of these fine shades of meaning, which give such life and vigor to the language of the Old Testament.

The difficulty in the use of the Hebrew verbs lies solely in the point of view, so absolutely different from our own, from which the Hebrews regarded an action; the time, which with us is the first consideration, as the very word, 'tense' shows, being to them a matter of secondary importance. It is, therefore, essential that a student should clearly grasp, not so much the Latin or English forms which may be used in translating each of the Hebrew Tenses, but rather the aspect of each action, as it presented itself to a Hebrew's mind.

The name 'tenses' as applied to Hebrew verbs is misleading. The so-called Hebrew 'tenses' do not express the time but merely the state of an action. Indeed were it not for the confusion that would arise through the application of the term 'state' to both nouns and verbs, 'states' would be a far better designation than 'tenses.' It must always be borne in mind that it is impossible to translate a Hebrew verb into English without employing a limitation (viz. of time) which is entirely absent in the Hebrew. The ancient Hebrews never thought of an action as past, present, or future, but simply as perfect, i.e., complete, or imperfect, i.e., as in course of development. When we say that a certain Hebrew tense corresponds to a Perfect, Pluperfect, or Future in English, we do not mean that the Hebrews thought of it as Perfect, Pluperfect, or Future, but merely that it must be so translated in English. The time of an action the Hebrews did not attempt to express by any verbal form" (preface and p. 1).

For a second good warning, Sue Groom, Linguistic Analysis of Biblical Hebrew, reminds us,

"There is no way of knowing whether modern scholars' reconstruction of semantic fields and sense relations in an ancient dead language are merely a reflection of their own intuition, or their own native language, or whether those fields existed in Classical Hebrew" (p. 128).

C. Moods (which are only analogies drawn from modern western languages)

1. It happened, is happening (INDICATIVE), usually uses PERFECT tense or PARTICIPLES (all PARTICIPLES are INDICATIVE).

2. It will happen, could happen (SUBJUNCTIVE)

a. uses a marked IMPERFECT tense

(1) COHORTATIVE (added h), first person IMPERFECT form which normally expresses a wish, a request, or self-encouragement (i.e., actions willed by the speaker)

(2) JUSSIVE (internal changes), third person IMPERFECT (can be second person in negated sentences) which normally expresses a request, a permission, an admonition, or advice

b. uses a PERFECT tense with lu or lule

These constructions are similar to SECOND CLASS CONDITIONAL sentences in Koine Greek. A false statement (protasis) results in a false conclusion (apodosis).

c. uses an IMPERFECT tense and lu

Context and lu, as well as a future orientation, mark this SUBJUNCTIVE usage. Some examples from J. Wash Watts, A Survey of Syntax in the Hebrew Old Testament are Gen. 13:16; Deut. 1:12; I Kgs. 13:8; Ps. 24:3; Isa. 1:18 (cf. pp. 76-77).

D. Waw - Conversive/consecutive/relative. This uniquely Hebrew (Canaanite) syntactical feature has caused great confusion through the years. It is used in a variety of ways often based on genre. The reason for the confusion is that early scholars were European and tried to interpret in light of their own native languages. When this proved difficult they blamed the problem on Hebrew being a "supposed" ancient, archaic language. European languages are TENSE (time) based VERBS. Some of the variety and grammatical implications were specified by the letter WAW being added to the PERFECT or IMPERFECT VERB stems. This altered the way the action was viewed.

1. In historical narrative the VERBS are linked together in a chain with a standard pattern.

2. The waw prefix showed a specific relationship with the previous VERB(s).

3. The larger context is always the key to understanding the VERB chain. Semitic VERBS cannot be analyzed in isolation.

J. Wash Watts, A Survey of Syntax in the Hebrew Old Testament, notes the distinctive of Hebrew in its use of the waw before PERFECTS and IMPERFECTS (pp. 52-53). As the basic idea of the PERFECT is past, the addition of waw often projects it into a future time aspect. This is also true of the IMPERFECT whose basic idea is present or future; the addition of waw places it into the past. It is this unusual time shift which explains the waw's addition, not a change in the basic meaning of the tense itself. The waw PERFECTS work well with prophecy, while the waw IMPERFECTS work well with narratives (pp. 54, 68).

Watts continues his definition,

"As a fundamental distinction between waw conjunctive and waw consecutive, the following interpretations are offered:

1. Waw conjunctive appears always to indicate a parallel.

2. Waw consecutive appears always to indicate a sequence. It is the only form of waw used with consecutive imperfects. The relation between the imperfects linked by it may be temporal sequence, logical consequence, logical cause, or logical contrast. In all cases there is a sequence" (p. 103).

E. INFINITIVE - There are two kinds of INFINITIVES

1. INFINITIVE ABSOLUTES, which are "strong, independent, striking expressions used for dramatic effect. . .as a subject, it often has no written verb, the verb 'to be' being understood, of course, but the word standing dramatically alone," (J. Wash Watts, A Survey of Syntax in the Hebrew Old Testament," p. 92).

2. INFINITIVE CONSTRUCT, which are "related grammatically to the sentence by prepositions, possessive pronouns, and the construct relationship" (p. 91).

J. Weingreen, A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew, describes the construct state:

"When two (or more) words are so closely united that together they constitute one compound idea, the dependent word (or words) is (are) said to be in the construct state" (p. 44).


1. They always appear first in the sentence.

2. Interpretive significance

a. ha - does not expect a response

b. halo' - the author expects a "yes" answer


1. They always appear before the words they negate.

2. Most common negation is lo'.

3. The term 'al has a contingent connotation and is used with cohortatives and jussives.

4. The term lebhilti, meaning "in order that. . .not," is used with infinitives.

5. The term 'en is used with participles.


1. There are four kinds of conditional sentences which basically are paralleled in Koine Greek.

a. something assumed to be happening or thought of as fulfilled (FIRST CLASS in Greek)

b. something contrary to fact whose fulfillment is impossible (SECOND CLASS)

c. something which is possible or even probable (THIRD CLASS)

d. something which is less probable, therefore, the fulfillment is dubious (FOURTH CLASS)


a. the assumed to be true or real condition always uses an INDICATIVE PERFECT or PARTICIPLE and usually the protasis is introduced by

(1) 'im

(2) ki (or 'asher)

(3) hin or hinneh

b. the contrary to fact condition always uses a PERFECT aspect VERB or a PARTICIPLE with the introductory PARTICLE lu or lule

c. the more probable condition always used IMPERFECT VERB or PARTICIPLES in the protasis, usually 'im or ki are used as introductory PARTICLES

d. the less probable condition uses IMPERFECT SUBJUNCTIVES in the protasis and always uses 'im as an introductory PARTICLE